French sociologist, Edgar Morin is emeritus director of research with the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). His most recent work published in English is Towards a Study of Humankind. Vol 1: The Nature of nature (1992).
A new way of thinking
Complexity represents a shift away from the simplifying, reductionist approach that has traditionally shaped scientific enquiry.
Until the mid-twentieth century, most sciences based their method on specialization and abstraction, i.e., reducing knowledge of a whole to knowledge of its constituent parts (as though the organization of a whole did not generate new properties in relation to those of its separate parts). Their key concept was determinism, in other words the denial of random factors and new factors and the application of the mechanical logic of artificial machines to the problems of living beings and social life.
Knowledge must make use of abstraction, but it must also be constructed by reference to context and hence must mobilize what the enquirer knows about the world. Individual facts can only be fully understood by those who maintain and cultivate their general intelligence and mobilize their overall knowledge. Admittedly, it is impossible to know everything about the world or to grasp its many varied transformations. But no matter how difficult this may be, an attempt must be made to understand the key problems of the world, for otherwise we would be cognitive idiots. This is particularly true today because the context of all political economic, anthropological knowledge has become global. As a result of globalization, everything must be situated in the planetary context. Knowledge of the world as such is necessary both for intellectual satisfaction and for life itself. Every citizen faces the problem of gaining access to information about the world, and then of piecing it together and organizing it. To do this, a new form of thinking is needed.
In the first place, the kind of thinking that separates must be supplemented with a kind of thinking that makes connections. Complexus means “that which is woven together“. Complex thought is a kind of thought that unites distinction with conjunction. Secondly, it is necessary to come to grips with uncertainty. The dogma of universal determinism has collapsed. The universe is not subject to the absolute sovereignty of order; it is the outcome of a “dialogical“ relationship (a relationship that is both antagonistic, concurrent and complementary) between order, disorder and organization.
Complexity thus connects (contextualizes and globalizes) and also comes to grips with the challenge of uncertainty. How does it do this ?
The three theories
One approach to complexity is provided by three theories - information theory, cybernetics and systems theory. These theories, which are closely related and indeed inseparable, emerged in the early 1940s and have had a far-reaching cross-fertilizing effect on one another.
Information theory gives access to a universe where there are both order (redundancy) and disorder (noise) and derives something new from it, i.e information itself, which then becomes the organizing (programming) instrument of a cybernetic machine. For example, information that gives the name of the victor of a battle resolves an uncertainty. Information that announces the sudden death of a tyrant introduces an unexpected new element into a situation.
Cybernetics is a theory of self-controlling machines. The idea of feedback, introduced by the U.S mathematician Norbert Wiener, breaks with the idea of linear causality and introduces that of the causal loop. The cause acts on the effect and the effect on the cause, as in a heating system where a thermostat controls the operation of a boiler. This regulatory mechanism makes the system autonomous, in this case ensuring that an apartment has thermic autonomy from the colder temperature outside. The feed-back loop may act as an amplifying mechanism, e.g. in a situation where an armed conflict reaches a critical stage. The violence of one adversary triggers off a violent reaction which in turn triggers off another, even more violent reaction. Very many instances of this sort of inflationary or stabilizing feedback can be found in economic, social, political or psychological phenomena.
Systems theory provides the basis of a way of thinking about organization. The first lesson of systems analysis is that « the whole is more than the sum of its parts ». This means that properties emerge from the organization of a whole and may have a retroactive effect on the parts. For instance, water is an emergent property of the hydrogen and oxygen of which it is composed. The whole is also less than the sum of its parts, since the parts may have properties that are inhibited by the organization of the whole.
In addition to these three theories are a number of conceptual developments related to the idea of self-organization. Four names that must be mentioned in this context are those of John von Neumann, Heinz von Foerster, Henri Atlan and Ilya Prigogine.
In his theory of automata, von Neumann considered the difference between artificial automata and « living machines ». He pointed to the paradox whereby the components of artificial machines, although very well designed and engineered, deteriorate as soon as the machine starts to operate. Living machines, on the other hand, are made of extremely unreliable components, such as proteins, which are constantly subject to dete- rioriation. However, these machines have the unusual property of being able to develop and reproduce themselves; they regenerate themselves through replacing damaged molecules by new molecules, and dead cells by new cells. An artificial machine cannot repair itself, whereas a living machine constantly regenerates when its cells die. It is, as Heraclitus put it, « life from death and death from life ».
Von Foerster’s contribution is his discovery of the principle of « order from noise ». If a box containing a haphazardly arranged collectionof cubes, each magnetized on two faces, is shaken, the cubes spontaneously form themselves into a coherent whole. A principle of order (magnetization) plus disordered energy have created an ordered organization. In this way, order is created from disorder.
Henri Atlan has developed the theory of « random organization ». At the birth of the universe there was an order/disorder/organization dialogic triggered off by calorific turbulence (disorder), in which, under certain conditions (random encounters) organizing principles made possible the creation of nuclear atoms, galaxies and stars. This dialogic recurred when life emerged via encounters between macro-molecules within a kind of self-productive loop which eventually became a living self-organization. The dialogic between order, disorder and organization exists in a wide variety of forms, and via countless feedback processes is constantly in action in the physical, biological and human worlds.
Prigogine introduced the idea of self-organization from disorder in a different way. In so-called Rayleigh-Bénard convection cells, coherent structures are formed and maintained between two temperature levels when a thin layer of silicone oil is carefully heated. In order to be sustainable, these structures need supplies of energy which they consume and dissipate. Living beings have sufficient autonomy to draw energy from their environment and even extract information from it and absorb its organization. I have called this process auto-eco-organization.
The study of complex phenomena can thus be seen as a building with several floors. The ground floor consists of the three theories (information, cybernetics and systems) and contains the tools needed to develop a theory of organization. On the second floor are the ideas of von Neumann, von Foerster, Atlan and Prigogine on self-organization. I have added some other features to the building, notably the dialogical principle, the recursion principle and the hologrammatic principle. ‘Complex thought incorporates uncertainty and is capable of conceiving organization.’
The three principles
The dialogical principle brings together two antagonistic principles or notions which on the face of things should repel one another but are in fact indissociable and essential for understanding a single reality. The physicist Niels Bohr believed that physical particles should be regarded as both corpuscles and waves. Blaise Pascal said that the "the opposite of a truth is not an error but a contrary truth." Bohr put this in the following terms: "The opposite of a trivial truth is a stupid error, but the opposite of a profound truth is always another profound truth". The problem is that of combining antagonistic notions in order to envisage the organizational and creative processes in the complex world of human life and history.
The principle of organizational recursion goes further than the feedback principle; it goes beyond the idea of regulation to that of self-production and self-organization. It is a generating loop in which products and effects themselves produce and cause what produces them. Thus we, as individuals, are the products of an age-old system of reproduction, but this system can reproduce itself only if we ourselves become its producers by procreating. Individual human beings produce society in and through their interactions, but society, as an emerging whole, produces the humanity of individuals by conferring language and culture on them.
The "hologrammatic" principle highlights the apparent paradox of certain systems where not only is the part present in the whole, but the whole is present in the part: the totality of the genetic heritage is present in each individual cell. In the same way, the individual is part of society but society is present in every individual, through his or her language, culture and standards.
Thinking in terms of complexity is clearly not a mode of thought that replaces certainty with uncertainty, separation with inseparability, and logic with all kinds of special exceptions. On the contrary, it involves a constant toing and froing between certainty and uncertainty, between the elementary and the global, between the separable and the inseparable. The aim is not to abandon the principles of classical science order, separability and logic but to absorb them into a broader and richer scheme of things. The aim is not to set a vacuous all-purpose holism against systematic reductionism, but to attach the concreteness of the parts to the totality. Linkage must be made between the principles of order and disorder, separation and connection, autonomy and dependence, which are at one and the same time complementary, concurrent and antagonistic. In short, complex thought is not the opposite of simplifying thought; it incorporates simplifying thought. As Hegel might have put it, it unites simplicity and complexity and ultimately reveals its own simplicity. In fact, the paradigm of complexity can be described just as simply as that of simplicity. Whereas the latter requires us to dissociate and reduce, the paradigm of complexity requires us to connect as well as to distinguish. Complex thought is essentially thought which incorporates uncertainty and is capable of conceiving organization. It is capable of linking, contextualizing and globalizing but can at the same time acknowledge what is singular and concrete.